There is at least a hundred year history of experimentation by the architectural avant-garde in los angeles, from Greene and Greene, Rudolf Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra to John Lautner and on to Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss. All except Moss, traveled to Los Angeles, coming here for the opportunity to innovate, try the untried and test the limits of modern architecture.
Although L.A. is a well written and many times overwritten tablet in terms of the built environment since the day the Greene brothers arrived in Pasadena in 1893, it still foments a striving for the new, the modern and the imagined. This experiment of a city envisioned in the mind and the people committed to constructing it in reality is still unfinished. After all, Los Angeles is named for blessed beings, seen in dreams, who with the wave of a hand, can create anything.
I’m going to focus on three examples, a school and two non-profit organizations that reflect the current state of pure research in architecture and landscape issues in los angeles. Often the products of their inquiries are difficult to easily categorize, they may be architecture, art or science.
First is a school: Southern California Institute of Architecture. SciArc, as it is known, began in a Santa Monica warehouse in 1971. Formed to create a new model of interaction between teachers and learners the founders saw the field of architecture as an ongoing, changing conversation. The current campus is in an old freight depot on the eastern edge of downtown los angeles and is still devoted to an ever evolving discourse around the future of architecture. A gallery space is used for the structural and space investigations of invited architects and faculty members working with students. These experimental constructions change every 6 weeks and are meant to be walked through, explored and interacted with. The next exhibit in the gallery is “If Not Now, When?”, Eric Owen Moss Architects.
In the fall through the spring there are a series of weekly lectures by architects from around the world who are at the cutting edge of their profession. These lectures are accompanied by images of their recent work and a question period. Lectures are free, open to the public and live streamed on the SciArc website. This is a rare opportunity to hear from the architects themselves the latest thought and direction of their field.
Following from the SciArc website:
If Not Now, When? by Eric Owen Moss
In 1998 the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio joined with SFMOMA and MoMA in a three-museum exhibition and debate examining the intersection of new conceptual design ideas with the burgeoning new capacity to construct objects that, so often in the past, could only be imagined.
The divide that separated visionary architecture from the technical capacity to realize those visions, from Gaudí and Mendelsohn to Lebbeus Woods, seemed suddenly to be narrowing. Now, the hypothesis went, if you could see it in your head, you could deliver it on the site. And the premise of that exhibit and the surrounding discourse has clearly been confirmed in the recent construction of building ideas that once came to life only in drawing…
The Wexner Center in Columbus was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman as an admixture of an historic, largely masonry structure and an exhaustive examination of the organizational prospects of the steel grid, as the new building addition. The orthogonal system — the grid as conceptual premise in architecture and city planning — runs backwards for millennia, with landmark stops from Hippodamus at Miletus, the first gridded city plan, to the Park Avenue Lever House and Seagram Building.
The Wexner addition is the architect’s effort to finally exhaust the promise of the grid as an ordering and space-making mechanism. The galleries present the grid as floor, as wall, as roof, as glazing system, as lighting, and as structure. But there is more: the tilted grid, the bent grid, the folded grid. Grids uber alles.
The Moss office in its installation offered the Wexner an entirely different perceptual and space-making option. The grid qua grid is centerless, a conceptual neutrality that theoretically extends in every direction, endless, and without a focus.
The Moss alternative examined a contrary ordering mechanism: the curve. The curve suggests a different spatial prospect — the possibility of center. So in the lexicon of shapes, no matter how sophisticated the discussion of intricate geometries, the essential juxtaposition is centered and centerlessness.
Moss built the missing center in the Wexner, supplying the geometric opportunity (intentionally) omitted from the original architect’s design. We called that foreign vantage point the Dancing Bleachers.
The attenuated steel legs — the ribbons — tenuously attached to floor and roof, suggested a concentric order of seats arranged around an implied center. The Moss exhibit at the Wexner implied a spatial center, and simultaneously, a center for advocates to debate, surrounded by a seated group of participants. Hyde Park at the Wexner.
The Wexner exhibit constructed that prospect of a center for debate, surrounded by the studied manifestations of gridded neutrality.
Not long after the three-museum exhibition, the Moss office was invited to design a high-rise structure in Los Angeles at the corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue, adjacent to a long anticipated surface rail stop intended to connect the Westside of Los Angeles with downtown. The site is located in the south-central portion of Los Angeles in a poor, minority area, well known for two race riots, but for little else — left dormant for years as various other parts of the city were redeveloped.
The high-rise project was designed, applying the antithetical grid premise first used in the Dancing Bleachers. The tower buildings — there were initially two — were designed without the conventional orthogonal order of columns and beams, but rather were supported with a dense, curvilinear order of ribbons, neither beams nor columns, that densely circumscribe and support the building.
The Moss office received final planning and design approval from the City of Los Angeles in 2008 to construct the high-rise, now a single tower, that will adjoin the downtown-to-the-Westside surface rail route currently under construction.
The tower is called Bondage.
Today the single tower building is being re-drawn and re-engineered by Greg Otto at Buro Happold, interrogating the original conceptual strategy and form-making capacity first examined in the Dancing Bleachers.
Construction will begin in 2010.
The Moss exhibit at SCI-Arc, scheduled for May 2009, re-examines both the content of the Wexner exhibition and the premises of the Bondage Tower at La Cienega and Jefferson. Again, the ubiquitous grid of the surrounding concrete gallery space, and, by implication, the enduring grid pro forma that continues to inhabit the planning and architecture discourse is contested by the curvilinear spatial nemesis.
It’s past time to defoliate that grid. But if I do that, the opposition between orthogonal and curvilinear is gone.
Architecture needs an enemy.
So we present the ubiquitous grid as a metal box, hung as a conceptual foil from the gallery roof. The ribbons and box intertwine. And Bondage re-makes the grid.
The Moss exhibit promises a colloquium, an audience assembled to observe the grid-in-bondage discourse (which may or may not actually transpire). And the form language of the ribbons suggests the prospect of a center or of multiple centers, whether or not those centers are discoverable in the installation. The exhibit elevates the aluminum box, attached to the gallery roof, bound by plasma cut aluminum ribbons that belong to the geometric and space making order of curves.
The attached box confirms a speakers area directly below.
The speakers space is surrounded by orthogonal rows of old chairs, likely to be empty, that provide permanent seats for an assembly that, as with the Dancing Bleachers, may or may not take place.
The second example is Materials and Applications, a non-profit organization based in Silverlake, a few miles northeast of downtown on the way to Hollywood. Founded by Jennifer Didier and Oliver Hess, there is an outdoor exhibition space that is always open in the middle of a street of shops and restaurants . There are two projects per year that are designed specifically for the space and explore ideas around architecture, landscape and interactivity in public space. M&A also hosts open air discussions, workshops, performances and other public events. The most recent installation was “Yakuza Lou” by Eddy Sykes.
Following from Materials and Applications website:
A fusion of natural and man-made elements into a carefully thought-out practical application which allowed viewers to re-evaluate advanced systems of design.
This multi-system consisted of a self-articulating, undulating landscape that utilizes hydrodynamics, motors, and growth patterns to constantly redefine a system of octagonal vegetative mats. Aided by a hinge-mounted motor, each octagonal palette expanded and contracted much like an origami, fortune-telling toy. The opened shape became a beautiful three-dimensional grass floret was a unique paint scheme partially inspired by World War 2 confusion camouflage. The landscape coexisted with an artificial Cumulonimbus cloud, which hovered overhead and transformed over time.
Eddy Sykes is the principal of ChersonProm-- a multidisciplinary 3D design firm that specializes in the development and manufacture of kinetic architectural systems. Mr. Sykes is a sculptor and architectural designer. His career has engaged him in a wide spectrum of esoteric engineering activities-- ranging from kinetic architectural systems for high-speed rail in China, to consultation work on blast-rated doors, and his current endeavors in experimental architecture.
The third example is another non-profit: ‘The Center for Land Use Interpretation’ near downtown Culver City on the westside of Los Angeles. The unwieldy name is a somewhat mischievous moniker to add a sense of gravitas to a quietly dissident organization that investigates how we use land in the U.S. The Center also hosts lectures, tours and educational programs. The straightforward exhibits use facts, film and photographs examining, and understanding land and landscape issues. The current investigation is about the oil industry in Texas. Past exhibits explored simulated towns for military/police training, the history of garbage (and the current practices of the industry) and towns that are now underwater.
Following from University of Houston, Blaffer Art Gallery website:
Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry
A petrochemical system integrates the country through a continental network of facilities and pipelines. This network, assembled over the last hundred years, moves crude, gas, and chemical feedstock, from coast to coast, production areas to processing plants, tank farms to tanker ports, touching every state. It is a circulatory system of the American Land, moving the lifeblood of the economy, in this Petrochemical Age.
Though the complexity, scale, and forms of the industry resemble those of science fiction fantasy, they are real and present.
If the oil industry has a heart, then it is Texas. And Houston is its aorta.
-- The Center for Land Use Interpretation
The Center for Land Use Interpretation is a research organization based in Culver City, California, involved in exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues. Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry is the culmination of the CLUI’s study of Texas and shows how the extraction and refining of oil has sculpted the state’s terrain. The exhibition is divided into three sections.
At the opening of the exhibition is a screening room showing Houston Petrochemical Corridor: From the East 610 Loop to the Highway 146 Bridge. Filmed with a gyro-stabilized HD camera, this 12 minute “landscan” video is an extended aerial shot of petroleum refineries and shipping yards that shows their massive scale. Adjacent to the projection is The Companies with 40 photographs of the Texas offices of international oil businesses. The photographs are paired with descriptions of each company and statistics on its production and size.
The final gallery, Texas Petrochemicalscape: A Portrait Gallery of Selected Petrochemical Sites in Texas, consists of 56 CLUI aerial photographs and texts on many different sites across the Lone Star State from west Texas oil towns such as Odessa and Kermit to petrochemical processing centers on the Gulf Coast and everywhere in-between. This installation is complemented by a 42-gallon clear plastic barrel of oil and a selection of maps that chart locations of pumps, refineries, and processing plants as well as oil, natural gas, and other petrochemical pipelines in the United States.
More about the CLUI Houston project:
In spring 2008, the CLUI was invited to Houston as the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center’s first artist-in-residence. Over the past year, the CLUI has worked with University of Houston students in the School of Art, College of Architecture and the Creative Writing Program and established a field station on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The field station is on the site of a former junkyard, located near a metal scrap yard at the juncture of the bayou and the Port of Houston Ship Channel, an important nexus for the refining and transportation of oil in America.
New commission from the CLUI and SIMPARCH
The Mitchell Center and Buffalo Bayou Partnership have co-commissioned a project from the CLUI and SIMPARCH, a design/build collective that utilizes paradigms of building, architecture, site specificity, ecology and transportation in their practice. The commission is a floating platform and multifunctional space – a small buoyant landmass that will serve as a creative context for related programs based out of the Buffalo Bayou field office, supporting interpretive programs along the waterway and serving as a work surface for salvage and transportation of artifacts. It will be a movable surface, for use on Houston’s interstitial waterways.
An interview originally published in Art Forum details the shifting categories of art, design and landscape research in which C.L.U.I operates: